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Missoula City Council approves open space upgrades, Downtown Master Plan

Posted at 2:34 PM, Nov 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-06 16:34:50-05

Downtown Missoula has a new master plan guiding its growth and redevelopment for the next decade.

Missoula’s defining river and abundant trails will have new and improved access sites. And local parks and trails will be planted with as many as 650 new trees.

With little objection either from the public or from within its own ranks, the Missoula City Council on Monday approved the 2019 Downtown Master Plan, then the first $775,000 in expenditures from the open space bond approved by voters this time last year.

“I’m thrilled with the recommendations for these expenditures,” said Ward 4 Councilman Jesse Ramos, often a critic of city spending.

One of his hesitations to putting the $15 million bond on last November’s ballot, Ramos said, was a sense that Missoula wasn’t properly tending the open space it already owned. And some of that land was hard to access, he said.

Open Space<div class="Figure-credit" itemprop="author">photo credit: 2019 Missoula Open Space Plan
Missoula City Council members approved the use of open space bond funds to help build a new trailhead, parking lot and ADA accessible trail on Waterworks Hill.

The spending approved on an 11-0 vote Monday (with Councilwoman Julie Armstrong absent) addressed all those concerns, he said.

Here’s the list:

$225,000 for the restoration – and in some cases, closure – of hardened access sites along the Clark Fork River from Ben Hughes Park to Riverside Park.

City staff members have identified 93 such sites where heavy recreational use has caused bank erosion and destabilization, damaging riparian areas and threatening public infrastructure, said Morgan Valliant, the city’s conservation lands manager.

“We are ruining our river,” said Ward 3 Councilwoman Gwen Jones.

$250,000 for replanting trees in city parks (and removing dead trees) and planting trees along barren trails.

“It’s time to reinvest in the open space lands we’ve been purchasing since 1980,” said Valliant. “We want to plant more trees in areas of town that have not traditionally received a lot of benefit from open space bonds.”

The funding will allow the planting of 457 to 650 trees.

$165,000 for the improvement of 63 local trailheads. And another $135,000 for a parking lot, ADA accessible trail and enhanced trailhead on Waterworks Hill.

Valliant said 100,000 people a year use the main Waterworks Hill trailhead.

Using land on the hill that the city received as part of its purchase of Mountain Water Co., a new parking lot would be built just south of the existing trailhead. The access road also would be improved and a new ADA-approved trail would take visitors to an overlook of the Missoula Valley.

“The open space bond will not be the sole source of funding for any of these projects,” Valliant said. City funds, grants, volunteer efforts and in-kind services will greatly increase the investment.

For example, the Waterworks trailhead project has an overall cost of $605,000, of which the open space bond will provide $135,000.

Downtown Missoula<div class="Figure-credit" itemprop="author">Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
The Missoula City Council approved a new master plan for downtown Missoula, building on the district’s 10-year-old plan.

Also adopted at Monday night’s City Council meeting was the 2019 Downtown Master Plan, a document that builds on the 2009 master plan, laying out a course for the decade ahead.

Downtown is “the heartbeat of our city,” said Councilwoman Jones. “There are so many great ideas in this plan. It makes us a better place in so many ways.”

Council president Bryan Von Lossberg hailed the plan’s five “big ideas,” the document’s guiding principles, identified during a public process that included nearly 4,000 local residents:

They are:

“Downtown needs to be more than one postcard street.”

“Improve urban design off Higgins Avenue,” the plan commands. “Land is too valuable for surface parking. Help the Hip Strip stay unique and be the next great downtown neighborhood. Connect the north, south, east and west. Make every downtown neighborhood a complete neighborhood.”

“Improve mobility, health and safety.”

The plan challenges Missoula to convert its downtown from a “drive-only” destination to one that is pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

It calls for new bridge and tunnel connections across the Clark Fork River and under the railroad. It puts a priority on “slower, safer streets,” a downtown grocery store, alleys that are inviting and provide out-of-the-way cafes and other amenities. It suggests a trolley “to help circulate people” and a quiet zone on Rattlesnake Creek.

“Stay original. Stay authentic. Be green. Create opportunity.”

Councilman Jordan Hess said he particularly likes how the plan hones in on “Missoula things,” and this “big idea” is the key to that effort.

“Stay artistic, chic and global,” the plan commands. “Stay a place where people are physically happy, emotionally satisfied and mentally at ease. Support local businesses. Grow green. Solar community. High speed internet. Add ART. Follow through on Zero by Fifty goals. Indoor food markets and third places. Tech and innovation ecosystem (fiber hotel, business incubators). Consider an eco-district (solar district, zero-waste district).”

“Enhance parks and open spaces. And better utilize the river.”

What was true historically remains true today. In many ways, downtown Missoula’s “back” still faces the river. No longer does the city literally wash and sweep its trash into the Clark Fork, but many of its businesses still face away from the water.

“Flowing ice and glittering sun on the water should be easier to experience,” the master plan says.

Downtown Missoula needs more activities that appeal to people of all ages, especially younger children and teenagers, according to the plan. It needs more river overlooks.

“Utilize good design to both create access to the river and protect it,” the plan says. “Indoor farmers market pavilion. Activate downtown with more pocket parks. Plant street trees and increase the urban forest.”

“Downtown is for everyone.”

Councilmen Hess said he “loved living downtown when I was a student.” And now, he said, “I love that we are talking about making it a safe, affordable place to live.”

Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, hailed the plan’s commitment to inclusiveness – both in the process that led to the plan’s adoption and in its vision of a district that is accessible and welcoming to all Missoula citizens.

Among the goals: “Affordable living and rentable building spaces for everyone. Create more childcare facilities. Grown inward and up. University existing building code. Pursue reuse of the Federal Building as a government center, with possible workforce childcare.”

McCarthy encouraged all local residents to spend time with the document and its dozens of pages of details. It’s available online at this link.

The lone dissenting vote on Monday came from Councilman Jesse Ramos, who said he feared the Downtown Master Plan is too exclusive and will further increase housing costs — or decrease availability.

“This plan will lead to further gentrification,” he said. “This plan is far from inclusive.”

Missoula cannot, Ramos said, “strive for perfection in every single place. … That comes at a cost.”

Councilwoman Mirtha Becerra abstained from the vote, as she is an employee of the Downtown Missoula Partnership. And Councilwoman Julie Armstrong was absent.